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Reviving Time: The Art of Upcycling Vintage Watches

In 2020 a friend of mine was leaving China, so i was searching for an appropriate leaving gift for him. I found some guys who were selling vintage Chinese watches, so I bought one of those for him. I say 'one', but i found it quite hard to decide which to get for him and which i wanted to buy for myself, or store up as leaving gifts for future, because some of these were so cool that I ended up buying four. I went to collect the purchases from the guy who worked with that company, and ended up spending a few hours at his house as he showed me all these weird and wonderful watches from the past. Before that I'd been mainly a smart watch-guy ("Why do i need a watch when my phone tells the time"), and i'd bought a couple of luxury watches to wear for special occasions, but I was hooked on vintage timers from that point on.

What caught my attention was the link to social history, and especially just how creative the watch-makers in China had been during a time period that i'd always thought was one focussed on collectivised production and food stamps. There was apparently part of the society that was interested in and able to afford bright pink dials and experimental layouts. In parallel the country was attempting to build a luxury product industry almost from scratch at a national scale. The guy who gave me the watches also clued me in on where to buy watches myself, Chinese internet and flea markets, so off I went and hoovered up as many affordable asian and old imported watches as I could.

In the vintage market, condition is really important; over time watches deteriorate if not looked after, as cases get bumped and scratched, original crystals get destroyed, parts break and dials become affected by the environment. I did spend some money on buying perfect conditioned watches from places like Japan (I love Seiko and Citizen vintage). In my earlier, naive splurges I had picked up a fair few watches that were very undervalued. The reason for this was largely because of deterioration, and the most obvious place where deterioration affects the market value was the dial.

My friend who sold me those chinese watches was a watch restorer and artist who also painted watch dials, which gave me the idea of picking up some of these vintage watches that were suffering from aesthetic problems, and trying to restore them using art.

The idea is a little bit like doing a tattoo coverup. Try to retain as much of the character as possible, but make it more attractive.

The artistic challenge is how to design something that flows with the physical features of the dial (such as the indices or logo), and the discolorisation or imperfections.  Take this Omega, there's plenty of oxidation all over the dial and indices. The difficult bit is that swirl around the middle. I try and avoid doing too much to the middle as the hands will often obscure anything places there; resolving these challenges is great fun.

The practical challenge is picking watches that can be repaired mechanically, and potentially serviced (finding old watch parts for obscure brands or complicated watch parts can be a pain, not just for me but for anyone who bought it).

The production process is basically this:

  1. Buy a watch with an attractively bad dial, or with potential

  2. Have a watch-maker remove the dial and service it (including finding any parts)

  3. I stare at the dial (usually 2 or 3 at a time) and think about potential ideas.

  4. I'll moodboard those ideas, usually using a basic photoshop app to create a digital version of the dial (with the markers, logos etc.) to allow me to roughly design the dial

  5. Once decided on a design, prep the dial

  6. Paint the dial

  7. Once dry, the watchmaker rebuilds it.

  8. Arrange any other finishes (sometimes the cleaned up watch shows imperfections in the crystal)

  9. Buy a strap

  10. Photography

As i've been working on these i've made some changes to some of my techniques, (such as how to create an outline on something so small) and picked up some tools that help make better artworks (such as magnifiers that mean i don't need to lean over and squint at the watch for hours)

The Omega from above I wanted to incorporate some of the naval associations that Omega has. I also wanted to explore stylised tattoo style, like you might see on the arm of a sailor who had visited multiple ports in Asia, but had pawned his watch in Shanghai. So this has an asian-fish style tattoo theme. The waves and fish serve to cover up the swirl pattern.

The watch has a very pronounced round crystal which makes the whole thing resemble a fish bowl and the way the water sloshes about represents that fish bowl.

Technically, working at this scale is very different to working on larger traditional canvas paintings. Sometimes to create an effect i find myself pushing small particles of paint into each other with the hair of a brush to create a small line in between them. Every now and then, some brush cleaning fluid will accumulate on the brush and drop onto the dial, washing out 25% of the painting, something that is never a problem when working at large scale. A strange phenomena is that sometimes the miniature painting looks different under microscope than to the naked eye - perhaps due to how light interacts with the texture and thickness of the paint. This is most noticeable with the miniature portraits (Green Fairy, Blue Geisha) where the face may look perfect under microscope but when you take a step back it appears distorted. It can take time to adjust so that both look acceptable - since these need to look good when worn but also when viewed enlarged, like on a website.

Personally, i'm addicted to this new facet of my hobby. The combination of design and technical challenges, which force constant innovation, and the feeling of being able to restore something that has lost the desirability that it once had is hugely satisfying. Vintage watches are fickle and characterful, which can put many people off, but by turning these mechanical artworks into wearable art hopefully will allow people to enjoy them in a different way.

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